A Nativist Argument for Immigration

I have a plan that will raise wages, lower prices, increase the nation's stock of scientists and engineers, and maybe even create the next Google. Better yet, this plan won't cost the government a dime. In fact, it will save a lot of money. But few politicians are going to want to touch it.

Here's the plan: more immigration. A pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants. And a recognition that immigration policy is economic policy, and needs to be thought of as such.

See what I meant about politicians not liking it?

Economists will tell you that immigrants raise wages for the average native-born worker. They'll tell you that they make things cheaper for us to buy here, and that if we didn't have immigrants for some of these jobs, the jobs would move to other countries. They'll tell you that we should allow for much more highly skilled immigration, because that's about as close to a free lunch as you're likely to find. They'll tell you that the people who should most want a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants are the low-income workers who are most opposed to such plans. And about all this, the economists are right.

There are also noneconomic considerations, of course. Integrating cultures and nationalities is difficult. Undocumented immigrants raise issues of law and fairness. Border security is important. Those questions are important. They're just not the subject of this column.

The mistake we make when thinking about the effect immigrants have on our wages, says Giovanni Peri, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied the issue extensively, is we imagine an economy in which the number of jobs is fixed. Then, if one immigrant comes in, he takes one of those jobs or forces a worker to accept a lower wage. But that's not how our economy works.

With more labor—particularly more labor of different kinds—the economy grows larger. It produces more stuff. There are more workers buying things, and that increases the total number of jobs. We understand perfectly well that Europe is in trouble because its low birthrates mean fewer workers, and that means less economic growth. We ourselves worry that we're not graduating enough scientists and engineers. But the economy doesn't care if it gets workers through birthrates or green cards.

In fact, there's a sense in which green cards are superior. Economists separate new workers into two categories: those who "substitute" for existing labor (we're both construction workers, and the boss can easily swap you out for me) and those who "complement" existing labor (you're a construction engineer and I'm a construction worker). Immigrants, more than U.S.-born workers, tend to be in the second category, as the jobs you want to give to someone who doesn't speak English very well and doesn't have many skills are different from the jobs you give to people who are fluent and have more skills.

That means firms can expand more rapidly because they have more labor of different types, and that native workers can do jobs where they're more productive. If you have lots of immigrant laborers willing to build things, a firm can build more things (and build them in America), and has more need for native workers who can supervise the production and do the technical work. The effect of all this—which has been demonstrated in multiple studies—is that immigrants raise wages for the average American.

But that's only half of their benefit. "Living standards are a function of two things," says Michael Greenstone, director of the Hamilton Project, which is hosting a Washington conference on the economics of immigration next week. "They're a function of our wages and the prices of the goods we purchase." And immigrants reduce the prices of those goods. Patricia Cortes, an economist at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, found that immigrants lowered the prices in "immigrant-intensive industries" like housekeeping and gardening by about 10 percent. So our wages go up and the prices of the things we want to buy go down.

We should remember, though, that the average worker isn't every worker. A study by Harvard economists George Borjas and Lawrence Katz found that although immigrants raised native wages overall, they slightly hurt the 8 percent of workers without a high-school education and those with a college education. A subsequent study by Peri looked harder at the ways immigrant labor differed from native labor and found that all groups of workers saw a benefit from immigrants—though unskilled workers saw less of a benefit than highly skilled workers.

And unskilled workers face even tougher competition from undocumented immigrants who, because their status is so tenuous, will accept pay beneath the minimum wage. And they are unlikely to complain about safety regulations or work conditions. That takes unskilled immigrants from being a bit cheaper than unskilled natives and makes them a lot cheaper—which makes employers likelier to hire them for jobs that native workers could do better.

This suggests, first, that American workers would be better off if we figured out a way to take the 12 million undocumented immigrants and give them legal status, and second, that we might want to give them more direct help if we're going to increase immigration. Both are possible—just politically difficult.

What shouldn't be politically difficult is forming a consensus around increasing the number of highly skilled immigrants. Due to a 1965 law, our immigration system is based on family unification. More than 65 percent of visas are for purposes of bringing family members to the United States. Only 15 percent are for economic reasons. As Darrell West of the Brookings Institution writes in his book Brain Gain, this means that immigrant families, rather than current policymakers, decide who enters the country.

That's nuts. Our immigration policy should be primarily oriented around our national goals. And one goal is to have the world's most innovative and dynamic economy. It's never going to be the case that each and every one of the planet's most talented individuals is born on American soil. But those born elsewhere could be lured here. People like living here. We should be leveraging that advantage, mercilessly roaming the globe, finding the most talented people and attracting them to our country. Like Dog the Bounty Hunter but for particularly able foreign physicists. When we have the best talent, we have the best innovations. That's how we landed Google, Intel, and the atomic bomb. Immigrants are about twice as likely as native-born Americans to start a small business, and they're 30 percent more likely to apply for a patent.

But since 2001, we've gone from offering 195,000 highly skilled visas to about 65,000 today. In fact, we let top students come for college or graduate school—and then we don't let them stay. "We should staple a green card to Ph.D.s in science and technology," West says with a sigh. "They'd like to stay here!"

There are other benefits to higher immigration, too. Contrary to popular belief, immigrants tend to pay more money to the government than they get back from it, as they pay lots of taxes but often collect fewer benefits. They're young, which helps us keep our entitlements afloat as the boomers retire.

And then, of course, there are the benefits to the immigrants themselves and to their families back home. But I've probably scared the politicians enough for one day.